Scholarship has been unable to determine who the true writer of Epinomis was, but it is generally assumed that the text available to us today is either what remains of an unfinished wax-tablet manuscript left behind by Plato at his death in 347 BCE, or is an extra chapter added later by a student of Plato’s, the astronomer Philip of Opus, who is known to have transcribed the first 12 books of Laws after his teacher’s death. Whatever the case may be, we can at least say that the dialogue provides us with perhaps the earliest example of a Platonic answer to the central question of philosophy: what must a mortal know in order to be wise?
In the dialogue, a Cretan, a Spartan, and an Athenian are said to come together to discuss that which is more important than their respective forms of political organization: namely, Wisdom. Epinomis seems more than just a clerical, but a highly significant title for a Platonic dialogue, since certainly what should come after (“éπι”) the laws (“νομίς”) of one’s local polis is a discussion of the universal principles from which all human laws are derived by way of feeble mimicry.
Plato wrote the Laws only after the political utopia he outlined in the Republic had failed to materialize in 4th century Syracuse. It represents the opinion of an older, more cynical thinker for whom the notion of rule by virtuous philosopher-kings came to be replaced by the “second-best” rule of constitutional law. With the addition of the Epinomis as a 13th chapter, Plato’s younger idealism is allowed to shine through the wear and tear of age. In it, he (or his student) points to the importance of an understanding of the harmonious motions of the heavens, because they transcend the petty disagreements of earthly men and so provide all with a publicly apparent source of Wisdom.
The Athenian begins the dialogue by offering an insight articulated by Gautama Buddha more than a century earlier (483 BCE), that, basically, life is suffering:
“I say it is impossible for men to be blessed and happy, except a few ; that is, so long as we are living : I limit it to that. But one may rightly hope to attain after death all the things for whose sake one may strive both in life to live as nobly as one can and in death to find a noble end. What I say is [973d] no subtle doctrine, but a thing that all of us, Greeks and foreigners alike, in some way perceive — that from the beginning existence is difficult for every living creature : first, partaking of the state of an embryo, then again, being born, and further, being reared and educated — all these processes involve a vast amount of toil, [974a] we all agree.”
Wisdom, then, begins to dawn upon the human soul only after she has realized that life is full of suffering, that happiness and blessedness are impossible until she has dealt squarely and honestly with the traumas of birth and death. The death-rebirth mysteries at Eleusis into which Plato was initiated provided the ancient Greek soul with an opportunity to die in spirit before dying in flesh. The philosopher’s task upon being reborn is to integrate the vision of heaven and immortality with their participation in political life on earth. This is no easy task.
The Athenian continues:
“the soul firmly believes and divines that in some fashion she has [Wisdom], [974c] but what it is that she has, or when, or how, she is quite unable to discover. Is not this a fair picture of our puzzle about wisdom and the inquiry that we have to make?”
As Plato articulates in the 7th letter, wherein he reflects on his failed experiment in Syracuse, Wisdom cannot be finally attained through verbal discussion of names, through written formula, or through sensory experience of any kind. All that can be said for certain is that the soul knows that Wisdom is possible for herself, that it is asleep within her and can sometimes be awakened through the application of the proper technique (i.e., philosophy).
The Athenian then runs through the various technologies employed by human intelligence: the cultivation of land and the production of food, the building of homes and the smithing of various tools and weapons, artistic reproduction like poetry and painting, the arts of sailing and of medicine. He concludes that none of them are productive of wisdom, since each deals only in conjecture and opinion. The only technique productive of Wisdom–the only way to become “a wise and good citizen, at once a just ruler and subject of his city, in tune with himself and the world as well”–is the study of the heavens, of the stars and the cosmos, the ordered motion of which is responsible for “[giving] number to the whole race of mortals [976d].”
The Athenian suggests that the rhythmical motions of the sun, the moon, and the planets through the sky taught the human soul to count and to record time. Modern paleoanthropology lends some support to this idea, since one of the earliest known forms of writing consisted of notches carved into bone fragments to record the phases of the moon. This science of seasonal time learned by contemplating the motions of the heavens, he argues, provides the foundation of every other technique that has subsequently been acquired through the exercise of human intelligence. “Thanks to these celestial events,” he says,
“we have crops, the earth bears food for all living things, and the winds that blow and the rains that fall are not violent or without measure. If on the contrary anything turns out for the worse, we must not blame God [who orders the heavens and provides for their participation in earthly events], but humans, for not rightly managing their own lives [by living in harmony with the seasonal motions of the planets] [979a].”
At this point in their search for Wisdom, the Athenian, the Cretan, and the Spartan agree that they will need to pray for the guidance of God himself if they hope to understand the true meaning of the planetary spheres and the process of their generation. Philosophy here becomes beholden to the power of faith. The seekers of wisdom pray that they might be granted Her council, that the Soul of the World might speak within their humble and open hearts.
The Athenian then says, “as a whole, soul is older than any body. Do you recall? You surely must remember.” He adds to his anamnesiac appeal that the celestial spheres are to be considered “living things…endowed with the finest body and the best and happiest soul [980d].” Either these spheres are indestructible, or “each of them is content to possess such a vast length of life that they could never possibly demand more [982a].”
Wisdom, the Soul of the World whose voice is made audible in the Song of the Spheres, is embodied by Plato’s Fifth element, also mentioned in Timaeus and his 7th letter. Soul is without name or color or shape or weight, no more made of fire than it is earth; rather, it is the invisible intelligent force underlying the harmonious activity of the other Four elements.
“Let us suppose,” suggests the Athenian,
“that [the divine stars and the creatures of the earth] are two kinds of living things, that both are visible, the one made entirely, as it might seem, of fire, the other of earth, and that the earthly kind moves in disorder, while the one of fire moves in perfect order. Now what moves in disorder (which is exactly how the kind of living things around us behave for the most part) we ought to consider unintelligent. But if something has an orderly path in the heavens we should treat that as powerful evidence of its intelligence. For if it always proceeds in its course uniformly and without variation, and always acts and is affected in the same way, it gives ample evidence of intelligent life. The necessity of the soul that possesses intelligence is by far the most powerful of all necessities. For it is a ruler, not a subject, and so ordains its decrees. When a soul reaches the best decision in accordance with the best intelligence, the result, which is truly to its mind, is perfectly unalterable…Humans should admit as evidence of the intelligence of the stars and this entire movement of theirs, the fact that they always do the same things, because they are doing what was decided an astonishingly long time ago and do not change their decision back and forth, sometimes doing one thing and at others doing something else, wandering and changing their orbits. This opinion of ours is the exact opposite of what most people believe–that because they do the same things uniformly they do not possess soul. The crowd has followed the fools in supposing that the human race is intelligent and alive because it undergoes change, whereas the divine is unintelligent because it remains in the same orbits. But in fact a person can adopt views that are finer, better and acceptable, and could have understood that whatever always operates uniformly, without variation, and through the same causes is for that very reason to be regarded as intelligent. Such a person could also understand that this is the nature of the stars, the finest of all things to behold, and further that moving through their march and dance, the finest and most magnificent dance there is, they bring to pass what all living things need [982a-e].”
The Athenian establishes that one Life moves through all things earthly and astral, that a single invisible Soul animates each and all. Even if the visible planetary spheres are but the elemental images of Wisdom, rather than the eternal gods themselves, still “no other image will appear more beautiful or more widely shared by all humans than these [984b].” He goes on to discuss the role of various atmospheric mediators, or daemons (i.e., angels and demons), who facilitate communication between gods and humans:
“…some of them have had various types of encounters with humans, whether through dreams in sleep or in audible communications through divine voices or prophecies to certain people whether healthy or ill or even at the point of death. The resulting beliefs affect both individuals and communities and have been the origin of many religious rites for many people and will be in the future as well [985c].”
Religious revelation, in this sense, is true, a fact about the Universe that reason must take into its consideration of the whole. But revelation must be checked through comparison to the meanings of the visible motion of the stars and planets, since “the worst people are those that do not dare to declare to us the gods that really do appear to us [985d].” Private, inner revelation is not enough. The words of God’s messengers must be plainly present for all to see and hear. The sun, moon, and other planets are these words, publicly available to all with ears to hear and eyes to see. Each one of them “contributes to the perfection of the visible cosmos established by the most divine law of all [986c].” In this way, the science of the heavens, astrology (which is not other than astronomy for Plato), is said to have provided humanity with God’s true revelation of Wisdom.
The Athenian summarizes what Plato treats more fully in Timaeus concerning the character of the 8 “powers,” or “orbits.” The first 7 appear to move to the right (from East to West), while the 8th, the cosmic sphere of fixed stars, appears to move to the left (from West to East). By holding together and harmonizing the different movements of the 7 inner spheres with the stable identity of the outer 8th, the World Soul creates time, perpetually birthing the visible Universe as “a moving image of eternity.” Through the unifying animation of the World Soul, all things in heaven and earth are made full of gods (991d).
Without the study of the heavens, according to the Athenian, “no one in cities will ever become happy [992a].” A true participatory democracy, where every person is both ruler of themselves and subject of their civilization–each full members of the Nocturnal Council capable of contemplating the true meaning of the morning sun–requires that all be initiates into the Mysteries of the Sky.
“Let no Greek ever fear that being mortal we should not concern ourselves with the divine Universe. We should have quite the opposite thought; the divine [i.e., the Cosmos] is never without intelligence nor is it at all ignorant of human nature, but it knows that if it teaches we will follow along and learn what we are taught [988b].”
- De Anima Mundi (footnotes2plato.com)
- Soul and World (footnotes2plato.com)
- The Poetics of Copernican Cosmology (footnotes2plato.com)
- Archetypal Cosmology